Frantic fight to save frogs from killer fungus

Hundreds of species face extinction unless scientists' amphibian arks can save them

El Valle, Panama

A A A

In moist, mossy rooms, rows of glass aquariums bathed in an eerie light shelter the last of the last of the frogs. It is a secure facility, for here reside the sole survivors of their species, rescued from the wild before a modern plague swept through their home forests and streams in a ferocious doomsday event that threatens these amphibians with extinction.

Time is running out. In what may be the greatest disease-driven loss of biodiversity in recorded history, hundreds of frog species around the world are facing extinction. Far from being obscure, many of those threatened are Class A amphibians – the kind of jewel-coloured frogs that adorn postage stamps and star in David Attenborough documentaries.

Frogs in the western United States are threatened, and Australia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean have been especially hard hit. Central American countries such as Panama are suffering a catastrophic decline.

The villain of the piece is a virulent fungus, an amphibian athlete's foot from hell, with an impossible name, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which scientists call "Bd" for short. The organism clogs the frogs' pores, triggering a lethal heart attack.

In Panama, scientists are returning to sites where, just a few years ago, they observed frogs in abundance. Cori Richards-Zawacki, a professor from Tulane University, New Orleans, slogged a few hundred metres down a narrow gorge of the Rio Farallon, peering at the banks covered in moss and fern where water drips from springs and waterfalls. The last time she was here, in 2004, she remembers counting 15 golden frogs in two hours. A few times a year one could see them congregate by the hundreds at the water's edge to copulate. Today? "Nada. Zero. None," she said.

Scientists calculate that more than a third, and as much as two-thirds, of all frog species in Latin America are at risk. In Panama, the country's mascot, the golden frog, has not been seen in the wild since 2008. Scientists began to document a worldwide decline of amphibians in the 1980s. Many were the victims of habitat change, introduced predators, pollution, pesticides or over-harvesting by collectors. Yet frogs also vanished from pristine habitats such as those in Panama. One thing is certain: the Bd fungus is wiping out frogs.

In a pretty resort town nestled at the bottom of a volcanic caldera is El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, known as EVACC, the original Amphibian Ark, supported by Houston Zoo. In 2006 and 2007, Edgardo Griffith, a founder of the centre, and his team, rushed to collect hundreds of frogs, representing a dozen species. In the beginning, they rented two rooms at the Hotel Campestre, where, day after day, they would rinse the frogs in an antifungal bath. They kept the survivors in the quarantine room before moving them to the clean room.

"It was a nightmare," Griffith said. "I saw frogs dying as we were collecting them. They would die in your hand."

Scientists aren't sure how long some frog species live, either in the wild or captivity, so they are not sure how much time they have. Before they can reintroduce frogs to their home streams, they want to have at least 400 or 500 healthy individuals. For some species, they have only a couple of males and females left. Frogs are sensitive creatures. They drink and respire through their skin. They need just the right amount of ultraviolet light. If they don't get enough vitamin B, they fail to thrive. If they don't get enough calcium, their legs break.

Some frogs prefer fast-moving water, others slow. So staff members turn cloud machines on and off, as well as humidifiers, and shower heads that mimic rainfall. Three people are on duty 24/7. Certain frogs fight in their tanks. They punch each other. High levels of stress hormones are found in their faeces – and, yes, someone is checking.

Encouraging them to breed in small, glass fish tanks, made homey with a moist paper towel and a rock or two, is harder than one might think. Frogs may require the right phase of the moon, or certain bugs, rainfall, songs, or other mysterious clues before they mate. After they reproduce, the hard work continues. Tadpoles are hatching with strange deformities.

Perhaps nature will take its course and some frog species will make it out in the wild, while others will be lost for ever.

"The quiet is incredible," said Jamie Voyles, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who was the first to understand the precise mechanism of Bd death. She is standing in a silent stream in Panama. "I used to collect here, take samples, and it would be, please, not another frog! Now I'm begging them. Come back."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project